water cooler Hey El Reg, help me with this. I saw someone on Twitter who complained that his face had to be scanned by the US airline JetBlue before flying overseas from America. Why should they do this?
According to food writer MacKenzie Fegan, she was asked to undergo a face scan at a computer terminal at the departure gate before boarding her JetBlue flight instead of being scanned by a flight attendant and checking her boarding pass. In the current debate about AI-based facial recognition and privacy, she was nervous and she left in the social media to discuss it.
JetBlue's Twitter staff responded that the facial scan was not mandatory and she could have opted out. They then explained that their image was compared to a photo database maintained by US Customs and the Border Guard to verify their identity and that she was listed as a passenger on the flight.
The airline explained:
The information is provided by the US Department of Homeland Security from existing stocks.
– JetBlue Airways (@JetBlue) April 17, 2019
We should clarify that these photos will not be provided but will be securely transmitted to the customs and border protection database. JetBlue has no direct access to the photos and does not store them.
– JetBlue Airways (@JetBlue) April 17, 2019
Uh, that sounds a bit seedy from a privacy perspective?
Many would agree, not least the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
You should be worried. https://t.co/hb4wU1rpbf https://t.co/T1MUTHSG6M
– EFF (@EFF) April 18, 2019
But as JetBlue has pointed out, scanning faces is not new. There was even a press release about the practice. The airline began testing such systems in 2017 and officially started operating the technology at JFK Airport in New York last November.
So what's up – cost savings, crime, Big Brother?
Maybe a little bit of all three.
First of all, says JetBlue, it will provide a more seamless travel experience – meaning there's no annoying eye contact and handing in boarding passes that the planes have to endure. The facial recognition system is designed to speed up the boarding process and, in turn, free the JetBlue staff for other tasks, rather than scanning passports at the gate.
However, there is a bigger picture and it turns out that JetBlue only recognizes facial recognition early. Every second airline operating in the US is also introducing face recognition technology to combat illegal immigration as part of the Biometric Exit program.
In a note [PDF] Last week, the US Department of Homeland Security raved about the effectiveness of Biometric Exit and said the pilot program at 15 airports had already identified and recorded 7,000 visitors who flew over their US visas while fleeing the states, most likely never travel back to America – and promises to roll it out by 2023 across all airports.
In other words, travelers just have to get used to it: if you pass your visa or are in the country, you will be identified on the way there, a black spot will be added to your file and is unlikely to be allowed again.
Is this like wall mounting, only for airports?
It's not really about identifying people who have legally entered the US, instead of stopping people sneaking over the Rio Grande.
The majority of immigrants who are illegally residing in the US are people who came here with a legal visa, be it a tourist, a job or a student, and did not leave when they should. According to Homeland Security, students are the biggest culprits (if you look at Apu), and estimate that more than half of the student visa visitors from Chad and Eritrea in 2018 will exceed their visa time limit.
Considering the different types of visa, Homeland Security estimates that last year around 1.22 percent of overseas visitors (that's 666,582 people) were welcome in the Land of the Free ™. Biometric Exit is meant to clock these people while they are getting on a plane from America.
As far as we can tell, the biometric exit program compares photos of visitors who arrived on their arrival with photos of people: if there is a match, the visa records are checked, and those who have passed have updated their files , It is intended to replace the current system in which the customs and border patrol agents compare the passenger lists with the lists of transferees.
So if you did not do anything wrong, you have nothing to fear?
Well, that has always been an easy argument. Who knows what this or the next or future administration will use this technology for.
The fact is that facial recognition systems are still in their infancy and have some serious problems. The data sets used to train such neural networks are sometimes of poor quality, and the algorithms may not be accurate, especially when it comes to color people. False positive results are part of advanced computer systems like this one, and that is little consolation for someone misidentified at the time of entry.
There is also a concern that the information collected could be used by other federal agencies for almost any purpose, as the legislation and regulations restricting the use of face recognition by the government are currently very limited. A potential privacy benefit is that the airlines themselves can not act as guardians of your facial data and can not use them directly – as far as we know, at least. It's all in Uncle Sam's databases, which should be reassuring?
Since the US government has not protected its most critical data in the past, you should not feel too comfortable. ®